Instructional League presents big opportunity for top Cubs pitching prospects

The Arizona Instructional League (henceforth referred to as "instructs") starts today.  It's a league with a lot less fanfare than the Arizona Fall League, which will also start soon.  You won't see the same head to head competition among the games top prospects.   Really, you won't even see competitive games at all.

Instructs, however, can be where a prospect makes a big leap forward.  As the name implies, players are there to learn.  They hone existing skills, get and/or develop entirely new ones.  Occasionally you'll see guys who missed some work due to injury or other reasons.

All eyes will likely be on top prospects Jorge Soler and Albert Almora, but just as important will be the progress of some of the Cubs pitching prospects.  Here's a look at those pitchers and what to expect.

Jose Arias, 21, RHP - Up until now, Arias has been working on locating his fastball, which can reach 95 mph.  He'll be 22 next season, so developing his secondary pitches will be a key as to whether the can speed up his time table and become something more than a relief pitcher.  He'll likely start in Peoria unless he shows great improvement in instructs.

Dallas Beeler, 23, RHP - An overslot signing out of the 2010 draft, Beeler (23), throws a low 90s two-seamer which can produce groundballs when he's on, as well as a curveball and a pretty good change.  He also has shown good control, but there's not a whole lot of swing and miss to his game (4.6 Ks/9 IP at AA Tennessee).  He looked poised for a breakout this year but it didn't happen, and the fact that he's here despite being the only pitcher on this list to pitch above low Class A implies the Cubs still have some hope that they can unlock the promise he showed last season.

Paul Blackburn, 18, RHP - The most polished of the two high school pitchers the Cubs took in last year's draft, he could start in low A ball at age 19 if he shows progress with his curve, change, and command.  As a guy who should have solid stuff across the board but not plus=plus stuff, Blackburn profiles more as a mid-rotation type than an ace.

Gerardo Concepcion, 20, RHP-  A lost season as he didn't show the velocity or command expected and then contracted mono to end his season early.  It's hard to consider him a top prospect right now despite the $6M bonus but he'll get a chance to show this past season was an aberration.

Nathan Dorris, 21, LHP - At times showed a good 90-91 mph fastball and a solid curveball at Southern Illinois, but he was inconsistent and he fell to the 17th round.  Pitched well in relief for both AZ and Boise.

Corbin Hoffner, 19, RHP - Not really a well-known name going into the draft but the Cubs like his size (6'5, 235 lbs) and potential to add velocity.  They drafted him in the 13th round and he paid immediate dividends, posting a 0.71 ERA with 4 walks and 13 Ks in 12.2 innings.

Pierce Johnson, 21, RHP - Perhaps the Cubs best pitching prospect, Johnson finished with some strong performances as the go-to starter during Boise's title run.  He'll be 22 in May and the Cubs will want to move him quickly.  The Cubs considered him a first round talent who slipped because of injury concerns and 3 mediocre starts after returning late in the season.  But he showed no ill-effects after signing.  Can reach 96 and throws a high 80s cutter, a hard breaking ball, and a developing change.  He has #2 starter potential and could skip a level if he shows well.

Trey Lang, 20, RHP - Lang threw up to 96 mph with a nasty slider prior to getting drafted and lasted until the 6th round primarily because he was raw and teams projected him as a reliever.  The Cubs seem intent at giving him a chance to start and he did lose some velocity in that role (91-92), but he'll have a chance to improve his stamina and develop an offspeed pitch this fall.

Dillon Maples, 20, RHP - A high profile overslot signing in 2011, Maples hasn't been healthy enough to show why the Cubs made a $2.5M investement in him yet.  He did pitch this year and showed the ability to miss bats but that was mitigated by extreme wildness.  He has the makings of 2 plus pitches (mid 90s FB, hammer curve), but command-- and health -- are obviously the keys with Maples.

Chad Martin, 22, RHP - Martin is huge at 6'7", 240 lbs and has a solid fastball (91 -93, 95 mph peak) to go with that size.  The rest of the 10th round pick's resume needs a whole lot of work. Throws both a curve and a slider, both of which were inconsistent, and he lacks command.  He profiles as a reliever but some don't think he has the aggressive disposition for a late inning role.  He's a project, but you can't teach arm strength... or size.

Carlos Martinez, 21, RHP - Another big pitcher (6'4", 230 lbs), Martinez was a lower profile signing out of Cuba this year ($250,000) but had a lot of success, albeit at rookie-level Arizona.  He has a low 90s fastball but both his curve and change look to be average at best.  He needs to refine those secondaries this fall to take a step forward.

Ryan McNeil, 18, RHP - Lots of mixed opinion coming out of the draft on McNeil as a raw pitcher who had all kinds of trouble repeating his delivery. The Cubs think they may have a steal here, however.  McNeil is still growing into his body and the team likes his athleticism and feel he has the ability to improve quickly as he matures physically.  He has the potential to be a big-bodied mid-rotation type innings eater.  He showed a lot of promise in AZ this year with a 1.35 ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning.

Juan Paniagua, 22, RHP - The Cubs biggest non-Cuban international signing this year, Paniagua has a smooth, effortless delivery that generates heat up to 96-97 mph to go with a power slider.  The change is rusty and I imagine he'll be working on that quite a bit down in instructs.  Along with Johnson, he may start as high as Daytona if he shows progress this fall.

Stephen Perakslis, 21, RHP - An under the radar signing, Perakslis showed a good fastball that sat at 92-93 and reached 95 when he was promoted to Peoria for his last appearance.  He hasn't shown a breaking pitch but the Cubs feel blister problems in college contributed to him going primarily with his fastball.  He does have an average change-up and if he can show a good breaking pitch this fall, it's possible the Cubs could try him as a starter.

Starlin Peralta, 21, RHP - A tall, rangy pitcher, I saw Peralta hit as high as 97 this year and in his last start of the season, he was able to maintain 94-96 into the 6th inning.  He also flashed a wipeout slider at times.  Profiles as a reliever but the Cubs will likely want to see if he can get a feel for a change-up that could keep him as a starter long term.

Anthony Prieto, 18, LHP - Slightly built at 5'11, 170 lbs., Prieto showed a big fastball as a prep, reportedly peaking at 95 before getting hurt.  The Cubs didn't give him a whole lot of innings to protect his arm and he hasn't shown anywhere near that velocity since.   If he does not regain that velocity, he does show potential for solid secondaries to go with good command, though he didn't display that at AZ after signing despite some good results.  The Cubs should get a better idea of what they have this fall.

Austin Reed, 20, RHP - I can't quite figure out why Reed isn't better than he is.  At times he pitched extremely well in Peoria but at other times he got lit up.  He has good size (6'3", 200 lbs), a fastball that can touch 95, plus a solid slider and change, but yet doesn't miss as many bats as he should.  Maybe the Cubs instructional staff can unlock some of that potential and get more consistent results from Reed.

Duane Underwood, 18, RHP - Underwood has been both a model of potential and inconsistency, not just as a Cub but he confounded scouts all summer, causing him to slip to the 2nd round despite occasionally hitting the high 90s to go with a knee-buckling curve-- but also sometimes throwing in the high 80s with a curve that spins up there and screams, "hit me". At AZ, he reportedly threw about 92-93 toward the end of the season.  He's athletic, and that always gives you hope that he can repeat his mechanics and reach that high ceiling some feel he has.  Looks like a boom or bust type of pitcher.

Ben Wells, 19, RHP - Wells avoided Tommy John surgery but did not regain the velocity he showed this spring, which some say had him hitting the mid to upper 90s.  I saw him in his last appearance and it was more like 88-91 and he struggled to locate his slider.  He needs to get some work in and build back that arm strength, command, and potential for 3 pitches that the Cubs saw in the spring.

Here's the rest of the roster, which I'll go over tomorrow...


Wilson Contreras, Chadd Krist, Rafael Lopez, Justin Marra, Lance Rymel.


Arismendy Alcantara, Gioskar Amaya, David Bote, Stephen Bruno, Jeimer Candelario, Ben Carhart, Marco Hernandez, Jesse Hodges, Carlos Penalver, Jacob Rogers, Tim Saunders, Dan Vogelbach.


Albert Almora, Yasiel Balaguert, Shawon Dunston Jr., Trevor Gretzky, Trey Martin, Bijan Rademacher, Jorge Soler.



Filed under: prospects


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  • Thanks John, this post was right in your wheelhouse.

    One question - what's a "wipeout slider"? Good or bad thing?

  • In reply to SFToby:

    You might be able to get one at White Castle.

  • Especially if you have too many at once.

  • In reply to SFToby:

    Haha! Good thing. It overwhelms them and then dumps dazed and confused hitters back in the dugout without knowing what hit them.

  • John
    This baseball thing never ends! Always something to follow (or for you, to write about)

    Do you know, in the instructional league, who is doing the instructing? Is this being head up by Brandon Hyde? I know they let go of alot of the minor league coaching staff. Did they replace any?

    Im pretty sure they have coaches avoiding the whole "Aww...just swing at the 1st strike you get" instruction under the old regime.

  • In reply to Cub Fan Dan:

    I'm furiously trying to re-work schedules and time to try and get down to AZ soon.

    Hyde will be there, as will minor league instructors like Tom Beyers (hitting), Douglas Llewellen (pitching), Franklin Font (infield), Marty Pevey (catching), and Lee Tinsley (baserunning). I'm sure there will also be plenty of scouts, minor league coaches, and occasionally some front office there.

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    John: let's say Peralta develops a change up (call it an average change, just for argument). Where do you see him slotting into a starting rotation? Or is a change up alone not enough to keep him there long term?

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    IF he develops a solid average change, and assuming his slider, stamina, and command become much more consistent, he becomes very intriguing as a front of the rotation prospect. But that is a lot of "IFs" and a long way to go on all those fronts, of course. Hes more likely to fizzle out in AA or become a reliever than reach that kind of ceiling.

    That said, the basic building blocks are there, which is more than what you can say for a lot of Cubs pitching prospects. He's one to watch for a breakout season.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Thanks. Definitely understand the "if's" with him -- was just wondering your opinion on a ceiling.

  • what is underwoods ceiling and what order would you put these pitchers for have the best potential underwood blackburn maples and johnson

  • In reply to kingpro98:

    Johnson is most likely a #3. Blackburn ceiling is a #3, Underwood could be a front end guy. Maples is most likely a #3 but I havent seen him enough.

  • In reply to WickitCub:

    i agree with the most likely scenarios, but there is still tons of optimism that johnson and maples could be more than #3's. i think that its possible that either one of johnson or maples could end up being similar to what cole hamels used (i realize things have changed) to be thought of when the phillies first acquired halladay and lee, a #2 guy who is a #3 because his team has two excellent starters occupying the #1 and #2 spots in the rotation.

  • In reply to kingpro98:

    The sky's the limit for Underwood if he can consistently be the guy who wowed scouts this past summer.

    Pure upside I'll go Underwood, Johnson, Maples, Blackburn -- but I'd put Johnson and Blackburn as most likely to get there.

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    Great write-up as usual, John! Looking forward to tomorrow's.

  • In reply to João Lucas:

    Thanks. I almost did it all at once but obviously it got too long:)

  • General question about Arizona Fall Instructs...I am in Mesa on vacation and wanted to take my 2 young sons (2 &4) to watch some of the Fall Instructs practices. Can anyone provide insights on whether that is possible and when they practice?

  • In reply to Jeff Mac:

    I'm actually trying to find that out myself as we speak. This will be my first time heading down there this time of year. I'll let you know as soon as I get more detail.

  • John,

    How do the Cubs decide on who is going to the instructional league? I assume these are all guys that they have hopes they that could put it together and build their stock or are some of these guys just filler in order to have a full complement?

  • In reply to supercapo:

    They look at guys with the raw potential to be big leaguers -- even if it's as a reliever...or backup, as all of the catchers on this list are. But it's purely instructional, so we're also talking about guys who need to improve. You won't see a more polished pitcher such as Michael Jensen.

  • underwood is possible to be a number 1 and why would you take someone in the first round(blackburn) that has a celing of a 3 guy but in a second round take a guy that can be a number 1 guy?

  • In reply to kingpro98:

    Because Blackburn if far, far more likely to be a #3 than Underwood is to be a #1. Blackburn is probably more likely to be a #3 than Underwood is to make it to the majors as a starting pitcher at all.

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    John. Is there any scouts or baseball people I should follow on twitter that will keep updates about the instructs and arizona fall league? Other than you of course...?

  • In reply to Demarrer:

    There aren't really any scouts on Twitter, but you can follow someone like Keith Law, who does scouting for ESPN, and lives in AZ. I imagine he'll be there often. There are also a lot of scouting/prospect blogs....I believe Adam Foster, who did an interview with us and runs Project Prospect is down there too.

  • Thanks for the write up John.

    If all goes well Daytona looks like it could have a monster rotation next year. Peralta, Paniagua, Johnson. Even a guy like Jensen. And I'd assume Rosario as well who seemed even more dominant than Peralta prior to the injury.

  • In reply to Furiousjeff:

    Rosario is one I haven't heard anything about in regards to his injury. When's he due back? Same question for Brigham.

  • In reply to tim815:

    Those guys are out for awhile it seems. At least until the spring.

  • In reply to Furiousjeff:

    Your welcome. It would be outstanding if all of those guys make it. We should see Peralta, Jensen, and Rosario (if healthy). If those other two guys make it, it's going to be a pretty tough rotation in those big ballparks.

  • John is the weather in AZ this time of year better for throwing breaking pitches then Spring? I'm just wondering if we can really gauge the breaking pitches for those who have only pitched in AZ so far.

  • In reply to JeremyR:

    I really wish we'd grabbed another minor league team (Rookie League, as in) this time around. I'm not sure where all these lowere level guys are going to get in their 40 innings.

  • In reply to JeremyR:

    I think they can at least get a pretty good idea. It may affect the break slightly but I"m guessing they'll take that into account.

  • John - I looked over this list again and was wondering why Zach Cates wasn't on it. He's got a very hard fastball and a changeup. If he developed a third pitch, he'd make a nice SP.

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